The changing face of erotica : a study of erotic literature in the works of Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin and Erica Jong

Gavera, Lucille (2004-03)

Thesis (MA)--Stellenbosch University, 2004.

Thesis

ENGLISH ABSTRACT: For especially feminist critics, erotic literature depicts an area of human experience dominated by male principles. Until very recently, the rules of erotica dictated that men mostly produced and consumed it, and women played the props. Of course this implies that female subjectivity is constructed by the male gaze, and hence reified and commodified in terms of the male prerogative. To challenge and overthrow 'male-perspective' erotic language and tradition, it has been argued that we need a woman's point of view, definition and description of sexual experience. To attack the phallocentrism of erotica, recent erotic novels have tried to create empowering scenarios for female sexuality in which the female characters are placed in positions of equal sexual power to the male. The analyses of the erotic writing of Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin and Erica Jong in this thesis attempt to determine whether the texts discussed succeed in incorporating diverse styles and orientations of depicting the sexual to construct a new language for desire. During much of his lifetime, Miller's writing was branded obscene, his voice too vulgar and his use of autobiography too egocentric. But critics also came to see his style and voice as revolutionary, and his use of the obscene and the irreverent as literary devices to awaken the reader from a wretched sterility of mind and body. Many attempts have been made to explain what many critics have come to see as Miller's misogynist and patriarchal attitudes in his writing. Although Miller inventively portrayed a sense of people and of place, he seemed less successful at unravelling his attitudes toward sex and women. And so many reviewers do not see Miller playing an expansive role through his writing of the taboo by freeing us from our sexual neuroses, but find that the reader is abandoned within the limitation of a sexual mindset that is only named, not transformed. The limited insight critics see in Miller's writing of the sexual has been ascribed partly to the fact that the sexual odyssey in literature has for centuries been a male prerogative in which the female's only role was to provide material for the fictions the male would create. But as is clear from Nin's and Jong's erotic writing, more and more female writers have taken on this journey, and have succeeded at least to some degree in giving their characters the power and freedom to reach a fundamentally female sexual awareness and position. Great disagreement exists among critics over the literary value and importance ofNin's writing. Her work has been rejected as pointless explorations of erotic entanglements in which writing becomes nothing more than a solipsistic activity. On the other hand, it has been recognised as a new kind of writing of the female aesthetic which ignited the discourse around the issue of a genre of gender. Nin's erotica mostly displays a woman's sensibility by using a woman's language and seeing the sexual experience from a woman's point of view. This implies that Nin treats her female sexual characters as subject-matter rather than object-matter as is generally the case in erotica from the male point of view. Although opposing viewpoints exist of Nin's contribution to the development of a female voice in literature, Nin does seem to expand the boundaries imposed on the writing of the sexual woman by introducing a fluidity in her depiction of gender and of sex - especially through her erotic portrayal of the lesbian relationship and her candid writing of the ultimate taboo - the sexual relationship with her father. While Miller's and Nin's lives were unavoidably entwined with their autobiographical writing, Erica Jong's writing - and by implication her life - was moulded into a media product, and it has become difficult to approach her work except through complex layers of reputation and stereotype. Although Jong's Fear of Flying almost immediately topped the best-seller lists upon publication, the sheer scale of the novel's sales led some critics to think of her work as 'popular culture' rather than 'literature'. Jong's erotic writing has sparked similar criticisms to those lodged against Nin's, especially those which question whether Jong ever attempts to defme her women characters away from a (dominant) male sexual partner. Although Fear of Flying was supposed to be a celebration of female sexual autonomy, feminist critics were troubled by what they saw as the female protagonist's ultimate affirmation of patriarchal standards of female conduct. But despite the varied criticism of Jong's attempt to write an alternative narrative of the female body, some reviewers do see such a new story in her main female character's physical journey in that it coincides with the biological rhythms of her 28-day menstrual cycle. Jong is therefore seen to write into her text much more than a body that seeks and receives sexual gratification to become a body that tells a tale previously absent from American literature. Yet the winds of social, political, economic and cultural change where the sexual is concerned have blown across Miller's, Nin's and Jong's erotic writing, so that the conflicts and challenges that occupied their sexual writing now seem to strike readers as very much dated. In this regard it is important to note how an increasingly 'me-orientated' culture and society - endlessly portrayed and exploited by the media - has forever altered the contemporary view of the sexual. And so the erotic in contemporary society has become ineluctably connected to the sexual value that the commercial gaze bestows.

AFRIKAANSE OPSOMMING: Dit is veral feministiese kritici wat van mening is dat erotiese literatuur 'n faset van menslike ervaring uitbeeld wat deur manlike beginsels gedomineer word. Tot baie onlangs het die reëls vir erotika gedikteer dat dit meestal deur mans geproduseer en verbruik moes word en dat vroue bloot die vertoonstukke moes wees. Dit impliseer natuurlik dat vroulike subjektiwiteit deur die manlike siening gekonstrueer word en dus geobjektifiseer en gekommodifiseer word na aanleiding van die manlike prerogatief. Om hierdie 'manlike perspektief' op erotiese taal en tradisies te kan uitdaag en te kan omverwerp is aangevoer dat 'n vrou se uitgangspunt, definisie en beskrywing van die seksuele ervaring benodig word. Om die fallosentrisme van erotika aan te val, het onlangse erotiese romans probeer om bemagtigende scenario's vir vroulike seksualiteit te skep waarin vroulike karakters in posisies van gelyke seksuele mag teenoor mans geplaas is. Die analises van die erotiese werke van Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin en Erica Jong in hierdie tesis is 'n poging om te bepaal of die tekste wat bespreek word daarin slaag om diverse style en oriëntasies van die voorstelling van die seksuele te inkorporeer om 'n nuwe taal vir begeerte te konstrueer. Gedurende die grootste deel van sy leeftyd is die werke van Miller as obseen gebrandmerk. Sy stem is as te vulgêr en sy outobiografie as te egosentries gereken. Maar kritici het ook tot die slotsom gekom dat sy styl en sy stem revolusionêr is, en dat hy die obsene en die oneerbiedige as literêre instrument gebruik het om die leser wakker te maak vanuit 'n armsalige steriliteit van gees en liggaam. Vele pogings is aangewend om wat baie kritici gesien het as die misogistiese en patriargale houding in Miller se skryfwerk te verduidelik. Alhoewel Miller vindingryk was om 'n gevoel van mense en van 'n spesifieke plek uit te beeld, het hy minder suksesvol geblyk te wees om sy houdings teenoor seks en vroue te ontrafel. Heelparty resensente is dus van mening dat Miller nie daarin geslaag het om in sy skryfwerk oor die taboes 'n verruimende rol te speel om ons van ons seksuele neuroses te bevry nie, maar dat die leser alleen gelaat word binne die beperkings van 'n seksuele sienswyse wat net genoem word, en nie getransformeer word nie. Die beperkende insig van die seksuele wat kritici in Miller se werk waarneem, is deels toegeskryf aan die feit dat die seksuele swerftog in die letterkunde vir eeue lank 'n manlike prerogatief was waarin die vrou se enigste rol was om materiaal te verskaf vir die verhale wat die man sou skep. Maar soos duidelik is vanuit die erotiese werke van Nin en Jong, is meer en meer vroulike skrywers besig om hulle op hierdie weg te begewe en was hulle ten minste in 'n mate suksesvol daarin om aan hulle karakters die vermoë en die vryheid te gee om 'n fundamentele vroulike seksuele bewussyn en posisie te bereik. Groot weerstand bestaan onder kritici teen die literêre waarde en belang van Nin se werk. Haar werk is afgemaak as sinnelose ontdekkingsvlugte van erotiese verwikkelinge waarin die skryfaksie as sodanig niks meer is as 'nsolipsistiese aktiwiteit nie. Aan die ander kant is dit herken as 'n nuwe manier om die vroulike estetiek te verwoord, wat die diskoers rondom die kwessie van 'n genre van geslag aangewakker het. Nin se erotika vertoon meestal die fyngevoeligheid van die vrou deur gebruik te maak van die taal van vroue, en deur die seksuele ondervinding vanuit die vrou se oogpunt te sien. Dit impliseer dat Nin haar vroulike seksuele karakters as onderwerpe eerder as voorwerpe hanteer - anders as wat gewoonlik die geval in erotika vanuit die manlike gesigspunt is. Alhoewel uiteenlopende gesigspunte oor die bydrae van Nin tot die ontwikkeling van die vroulike stem in die letterkunde bestaan, lyk dit tog asof Nin die grense verbreed het wat op skryfwerk oor die seksuele vrou geplaas is. Sy het vloeibaarheid in haar voorstelling van geslag en van seks bekendgestel - veral deur haar erotiese uitbeelding van die lesbiese verhouding en haar openhartige beskrywing van die uiterste taboe, naamlik die seksuele verhouding met haar vader. Terwyl beide Miller en Nin se lewens onlosmaaklik verstrengel was in hulle outobiografiese skryfwerk, is die werke van Erica Jong - en by implikasie ook haar lewe - gegiet as 'n mediaproduk, en dit het moeilik geword om haar werk sonder die komplekse lae van reputasie en stereotipe te benader. Alhoewel Jong se Fear of Flying feitlik met publikasie al reeds bo-aan die topverkoperslys was, het die fenomenale verkope van die boek daartoe gelei dat sommige kritici aan haar werk dink as 'populêre kultuur' eerder as 'letterkunde' . Jong se erotiese werk het soortgelyke kritiek as dié jeens Nin se werk op die hals gehaal, veral vir diegene wat bevraagteken het of Jong ooit 'n poging aanwend om haar vroulike karakters te defmieer verwyder van 'n (dominante) manlike seksuele gesel. Alhoewel Fear of Flying veronderstel was om 'n viering te wees van vroulike seksuele outonomie, was feministiese kritici bekommerd oor wat hulle gesien het as die vroulike protagonis se uiteindelike bevestiging van die patriargale standaarde van vroulike gedrag. Maar ten spyte van die uiteenlopende kritiek op Jong se poging om 'n alternatiewe narratief oor die vroulike liggaam te skryf, sien sommige resensente tog so 'n nuwe storie in haar vroulike hoofkarakter se fisiese reis deurdat dit ooreenstem met die biologiese ritmes van haar 28-dag menstruele siklus. Daar word dus aangeneem dat Jong veel meer in haar teks inskryf as bloot 'n lewende wese se soeke na en ontvang van seksuele gratifikasie om uiteindelik 'n wese te word wat 'n verhaal vertel wat voorheen afwesig was in die Amerikaanse letterkunde. Die winde van sosiale, politiese, ekonomiese en kulturele veranderinge het egter, wat die seksuele betref, ook oor die erotiese werke van Miller, Nin en Jong gewaai, sodat die konflikte en uitdagings wat in hulle seksuele werke na vore gekom het deur vandag se lesers beslis as verouderd ervaar word. In hierdie verband is dit belangrik om daarop te let hoe 'n toenemende ek-geërienteerde kultuur en samelewingeindeloos voorgestel en uitgebuit deur die media - vir altyd die kontemporêre beeld van die seksuele verander het. En so het die erotiek in die kontemporêre samelewing onvermydelik gekoppel geraak aan die seksuele waarde wat die kommersiële uitkyk daaraan toegewys het.

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